Inexpensive Lighting Kits
for Home Portrait Setups

My opinion is that you'll end up using flash for portraits. Because continuous lights are relatively dim, and typically require slow shutter speed at high ISO and a wide open lens. Instead, I'm speaking here of more formal portraits with flash, more like ISO 100 and f/8 and 1/200 second.

Questions about acquiring the cheapest possible continuous light kit for home portraits are very frequently seen on forums (everyone seems to start with a similar thought).

Would it improve my indoor portraits, and have any value in learning and experimenting with lighting technique? Or is it such poor quality that I should just avoid it?

The issue is about continuous lights typically being too dim for proper use with portrait settings indoors (the Sun is the exception). And hot large light bulbs are a real pain, our subjects may tend to sweat, but the problem is such 500 watt bulbs are still dim for photography. In the brightest part of your house, maybe a well lighted kitchen or bathroom, count the watts of all the bulbs, and then try a normal sunshine daylight exposure (EV 15 at ISO 100 f/16 1/125 second, i.e., Sunny 16), and see what you get.

Continuous lights can be very good for table top or still life, possibly even preferred then, because we can see continuous light to adjust and judge the lighting, and also, the camera can meter it (and zero recycle time between shots). Then it is no problem to necessarily use a long shutter speed to accumulate sufficient light. But artificial continuous is simply insufficient light for portraits of humans. Humans move, especially kids, and we need a faster shutter speed. You will struggle with 500 watts, tying to make all your maximums work (1/30 second f/2.8 ISO 400). It never really does. It can be better if willing to crank ISO up a few stops even higher. But keep the lights turned OFF at every opportunity. Two of these bulbs mimic a 1000 watt room heater. The subject literally tends to sweat. More details about differences in flash and continuous (2 pages there, this is the second, adding the final "a").

A speedlight flash (like a $85 Yongnuo YN-560 IV) is rated by Guide Number, regular fully powered is GN 92/28 (feet/meters) at ISO 100, 24 mm zoom (advertised as GN 190/58 feet/meters at 105 mm). That means maximum power direct flash at f/9.2 at 10 feet, ISO 100 (or f/18.4 at 5 feet), at any shutter speed up to camera maximum sync speed, probably 1/200 second. It will be a couple of stops less in an umbrella, but the flash is still very usable. This is greatly more light than the continuous light bulbs at 1/30 second f/2.8 ISO 400, maybe four stops more light (like day and night). An umbrella is used "close as possible" anyway, to be a soft light. Plus you can turn a flash down when its too much, and it will Not heat up your room, and its speed stops motion better than shutter speed can (is called speedlight).

See some inexpensive kits below of two umbrellas and two light stands for your added speedlights.

Studio lights have better studio features than speedlights. They are designed to mount all manner of lighting modifiers like umbrellas, softboxes, grids, snoots, etc. Good ones are fan cooled, etc. And they offer more power. Studio lights are rated as watt seconds of electrical energy input. (Power is the energy used in a specified time, like one second.) A regular fully powered speedlight will compare at about 75 watt seconds. Some speedlights are a little smaller, and some studio lights are much bigger (and too big can be a bigger problem than too small... we can only turn them down so much, but we can always increase ISO a little)...

Meaning of Watt Seconds

There is a distinction between power and energy. Watts of power is a rate of energy consumption (named in honor of James Watt, 1736-1819, Scottish inventor of the steam engine). Continuous lights consume watts of power all of the time they are on. The total energy is the accumulation used, which depends on how long they are on. Watt Seconds is simply watts multiplied by seconds. Our electric bill pays for kilowatt hours (KWH) of energy, which is larger units for the same idea, kilowatts instead of watts, and hours instead of seconds. One watt is the power of one volt at one amp of current. One watt is the same as one joule per second, and one watt second is one joule of energy (named in honor of James Prescott Joule, English physicist, 1818-1889).

There is an exception modifying actual watt seconds. An inductive load (due to transformers, electric motors, fluorescent light ballasts, etc) cause the current and voltage to be out of phase, causing power inefficiency. So actual watt seconds is (volts × current amps × power factor). A CFL bulb may be power factor 1.6. Purely resistive loads are power factor 1. See more about watt seconds.

Continuous lights are only effective for photography while the shutter is open. The camera can only see them while the shutter is open, if the flash is lighted then. So the shutter duration is used to determine the energy "used" for the photo by a continuous light, or the energy of the flash duration for flash. The flash duration is typically shorter than the shutter duration, and the shutter must merely be open to pass it.

During a 1 second shutter, a 150 watt continuous light will consume 150 watts x 1 second = 150 watt seconds of energy. Photographically, that one second is quite bright (if the shutter speed accumulates a one second sum of energy).

But during a 1/100 second shutter, it will consume 150 watts x 1/100 second = 1.5 watt seconds, which is NOT bright.

See the comparison for your portrait session? Plus watt seconds is the energy input, and NOT the light output. The flash is 3 or 4 times more efficient at making light then the incandescent bulb. So except for the bright direct sun, a 75 watt second speedlight easily runs circles around a continuous light in any home situation (but movie videos do require continuous light).

A camera mounted flash is of a type called a speedlight, which can be very fast, faster than most shutter speeds, because it creates lower flash power levels by cutting the flash duration short, which can be tremendously fast if not at full power level. Perhaps 1/3000 second duration at 1/4 power, perhaps 1/20000 second at 1/32 power. This is what can stop motion.

A speedlight is fast, and can do its 75 watt seconds at any shutter speed (up to the cameras 1/200 second maximum sync). But the speedlight is faster yet. This 75 watt seconds might be 75,000 watts for 1/1000 second (due to the immense and sudden discharge of energy stored in a big flash capacitor). You already realize what your speedlight can do. Which is a lot, but imagine in comparison what 1.5 watt seconds of energy can do (only 2% of 75 watt seconds).

The watt seconds is electrical input energy, but the actual efficiency of conversion to incandescent light output is much less (lower efficiency). Because the flash (and fluorescent) will be around four times more efficient producing light from its watt-seconds than are incandescent bulbs (they produce heat instead). So flash is tremendously more light on the subject. And a fast light which stops motion. And no heat to make your subject sweat.

Umbrellas vs softboxes

This is Not meant to be a definitive comparison. But there are three classes to consider here, softbox, shoot-through umbrella, and reflected umbrella. The "quality" or softness of the light depends not on its type, but mostly on its size and closeness. If the size and closeness of umbrella and softbox are similar, then their light quality is very similar, no big deal. But other than the light quality, there are a few physical differences too.

Speedlights do work well in umbrellas (see Mounting Speedlights in Umbrellas). Compared to studio lights, speedlights are relatively low power (typically equivalent to 60 or probably 75 watt seconds), but umbrellas are normally used very close anyway (main light essentially as close as possible, for the soft light). The built-in speedlight reflector is no disadvantage for umbrellas ((24 mm zoom is 78x60 degrees, and I normally use 24 mm mounted at full umbrella shaft length). Do think reflected umbrellas, IMO shoot-through is a very special case only for very close distances, due to excessive spill, wasting 2/3 of the power out the back side (but the shoot-through can be placed VERY close, when it may not matter). See some speedlight power examples.

You can use Maximum Shutter Sync Speed (often 1/200 second) with flash, but up close, with the reflected umbrella fabric at about four feet from subject (and at ISO 100), stopping down more than to f/8 might be difficult for speedlights. (Qualification, you might use f/16 with the umbrella very close for macro, but portrait views usually need the light stand pole at about 2 feet, which puts the fabric at about 4 feet). Just trying to say you may prefer f/5.6 for the faster recycle speed, as recycle can be slow at maximum power level. You will normally want manual flash mode or manual units for portrait work. Then my choice for indoor portraits is to use a PC sync cord to nearest light (normally the fill light near the camera) and optical slaves on all others (but radio triggers work too, see Triggering).

Compact fluorescent lamps: Fluorescent efficiency is higher than incandescents, and we do see kit fixtures with maybe five 28 watt CFL bulbs which is 140 watts total, which is roughly the equivalent light of a 500 watt incandescent, but with only 140 actual watts. So cooler heat, but not any brighter — shutter speed still decimates the watt seconds, so you'll still need low shutter speed, high ISO, and wide aperture. Physically, these seem a misfit in an umbrella, they seem to miss the idea. Seems just something easy to make and sell, but hardly a smart design. In the picture at right (intended as a Bad example), how much of the light can hit the umbrella? How much will be spill light out the side? Do realize what the picture shows. Some light does go into the umbrella, but most of the light goes out the side, spill flooding the room, but missing the umbrella and the subject altogether. A speedlight does work fine in an umbrella (typically 24 mm zoom mounted at full shaft length in a reflected umbrella, which should have the black cover on it). But this side loss is one reason CFL seems a deficient plan in umbrellas. Some type of flood light bulb maybe, but they don't have high power compared to a flash. A speedlight flash at 24 mm zoom seems much better fitted.

CFL bulbs make much better sense in a softbox (which is a reflector to direct all the light forward). This scattering is good inside a softbox to diffuse it. This degree of continuous light is still marginally usable for photography. You'll still be hoping to work at ISO 400 1/60 second f/2.8 (if the light is placed close enough).

See more discussion and samples of this flash vs. continuous light difference.

Spectrum: CFL bulbs come in colors, Warm, Cool, Daylight, but their color is not as "complete" or perfectly matched as incandescent or flash. Even if the CFL lamp is called "Daylight", no fluorescent has a continuous color spectrum, which makes matching White Balance be a harder problem, an exact match is never possible. Because of this, fluorescent lamps have a CRI rating (Color Rendering Index). Their spectrum is a few discrete lines vs. a continuous spectrum. When choosing fluorescent bulbs, a high rating (CRI 80+) has better color — not perfect, but better, pretty close, often nearly acceptable. CRI is Not about color like Daylight or Warm or Cool, but is about quality of the light due to its incomplete spectrum. CRI is very important about fluorescent or LED, but unnecessary about incandescent or sunlight or flash. A lower CRI is poor for color photography (and also poor in the closet where the wife selects her clothing — to see color correctly, she wants high CRI too, CRI 80+). Perhaps high CRI is often "good enough", most colors will look OK, but the colors not in its spectrum won't look right. In contrast, incandescent lamps do have a continuous spectrum and incandescent is the definition of theoretical maximum CRI 100. Incandescent may be orange, which we adapt to, but it can easily be matched, all of the spectrum is present (tungsten filaments). Sunshine is continuous too, and flash is very close, but fluorescent and LED lights simply are not continuous spectrum.

But the biggest problem is that artificial continuous light is not very bright photographically. Unless you are Hollywood and can provide big generators and really HUGE lights. 😊 The only reason they do it is because movies require continuous lights.

This is why flashes are routinely used for portraits. Sure, everyone is attracted to the low price of the incandescent continuous lights at first, but due to low light levels (and heat), those buyers either give up, or they turn to flash (except maybe for the still life mentioned). Continuous lights are simply not sufficient light for any major photographic use.

Studio flash models typically range from 150 to 1200 watt seconds, some are 2400 watt seconds. 150 to 300 watt seconds is an ideal value for home indoor portraits. There are bigger uses that need more power (typically in sunlight or for greater distances), but you will still turn 150 watt seconds down for umbrella or softbox portraits (if the lights are placed appropriately close to be a soft light). And frankly, bigger flashes can be a real problem being able to turn them down enough. The color typically shifts toward red then too.

The way to compare lights is that doubling watt seconds is one stop brighter. Same way when using them, turning them down to half power is one stop less exposure. So 150 watt seconds is one stop more power than a speedlight (one stop is a lot). The studio light also recycles faster, and has a fan to allow rapid shooting, and accepts many more lighting modifiers (softboxes, etc). In many cases, it may even cost less than a fancy branded speedlight.

Umbrellas are used at close range, and speedlights do work in umbrellas. The speedlights with guide number about 98/30 feet/meters at 24 mm zoom (78x60 degree coverage) are about 75 watt seconds. The smaller models might be 50 or 60 ws. Zoomed longer is a concentrated smaller beam into a smaller coverage, which is greater guide number, but still the same watt seconds. Watt seconds of a flash is computed as 1/2 CV², where C is flash capacitor capacitance in farads, and V is the full charge voltage of the capacitor. Watt seconds is the electrical input energy (not the light output energy). A Nikon SB-800 flash uses a 1400 µfd capacitor charged to 325 volts, which 0.5 × 0.0014 × 325² computes 73.9 watt seconds of energy. And if comparable reflectors are used (with same angular coverage), it also compares that way to a studio flash. The smaller speedlights with guide number 75/23 at 24 mm may be about 50 watt seconds. Again, watt seconds is the electrical energy input. Light output can depend on efficiency.

Speedlights can be relatively inexpensive, like a manual Yongnuo YN-560 would be good for umbrella use, and is $59 to $85 depending on version II, III, or IV) and is rated as full power at GN 92/28 (feet/meters) at ISO 100, 24 mm zoom, and maybe about 75 watt seconds (advertised as GN 190/58 feet/meters at 105 mm, but an umbrella will use 24 mm).

The speedlight is smaller than studio flash, and so is used more near full power when in an umbrella, slightly marginal power with a couple seconds recycle time, but it does work fine. It has limits (low power, slow recycle, easily overheats if shooting fast, cannot mount most light modifiers) Speedlights do work well in an umbrella, or you might even mount two in one umbrella for double power. Fully powered speedlight portraits at ISO 100 f/8 1/200 second in close white reflected umbrellas are possible if not too distant (using lower power would need wider aperture, but lower power would recycle faster between shots).

A 150 watt second studio light in a softbox is probably turned down to 1/2 or 1/4 power anyway (if up close, depending on distance). A 320 watt second light is turned down even more. But a larger light will be necessary in some cases, like in bright sun or for greater distance (lighting the basketball court maybe). To overpower the sun, you will need more (depends on flash distance). But the idea of buying a large light for just in case we need it, but always having to turn it down so much for portraits, if we even can, is not the best plan (color changes with power level). Instead of always suffering with the degree of a too-large light, the need is for different lights for such different purposes. 150 to 300 watt seconds is plenty for living room portraits, and 75 watt second speedlights usually can do a very creditable job (in umbrellas, they will be working near full power level, so with a couple of seconds recycle time between shots).

Triggering all the lights:

Studio lights have a trigger port (for a PC cord from camera) and will also include an internal optical slave trigger to flash in sync when seeing another manual flash fire. The optical slave trigger is enabled if there is no sync cord plugged in. In my own indoor use, a camera PC cord triggers the fill light, which is very near the camera, and then its flash triggers all the others with internal optical slaves. The studio fill light is strong enough to even always trigger a background light hidden behind the subject. Works really well, with never any issue.

Speedlights may or may not have a trigger port for a PC cord, but if not, inexpensive flash foot adapters are available to provide one. Same with cameras without a PC port, inexpensive hot shoe adapters can provide one (I use a Nikon AS-15 for this, even on cameras with a PC port, because it works better for me).
Speedlights also may or may not have an internal optical slave trigger, but again, inexpensive adapters can provide one (might be foot mounted, or some will plug into the flash PC port). Note that the internal optical slaves use full flash battery power which is considerably more reliable and trouble free than the addons which can only use voltage generated by the flashed sync signal to power them (so a stronger triggering flash can help them react).

You can of course always use radio triggers on all lights, likely desirable in sunlight outdoors, but the studio light's internal optical slaves already exist, and work excellently in indoor portrait situations without problems. IMO, there is no point of considering radio triggers for indoor portraits, the internal optical slaves seem much less troublesome (connections, setup, batteries, etc).

Inexpensive studio lights

We can pay $1000 or $2000 for one monolight, and some users do. At a more affordable level, the $500 Einstein has much attention now. But the inexpensive ones create light too, and just to offer an idea of the concept, the way I interpret the specs on some popular inexpensive monolights is:

Flash specsAlienbees B400Alienbees B800Impact 160Impact 300Flashpoint 320MFlashpoint 620M
Watt seconds 160 WS 320 WS 160 WS 300 WS 150 WS 300 WS
Max Recycle time0.5 second 1 second 2 seconds 2 seconds 1 second 1.5 second
Flash duration 1/6000 second 1/3300 second 1/2000 to 1/10001/1800 to 1/8001/600 to 1/1000 second
Power steps Continuous 2.5 inch slider marked at5 stops to 1/165 stops to 1/16Continuous knob
6 stops to 1/32 6 stops to 1/326 stops to 1/32 6 stops to 1/32
Modeling light150 watts 150 watts 60 watts 100 watts 100 watts 150 watts
Circuit protectionBreaker Breaker Fuse Fuse Fuse Fuse
Fan cooled Yes Yes No No No Yes
Auto Dump Yes Yes Limited Limited Not specified
AC power 120 VAC 120 VAC 120 VAC 120 VAC 130 VAC or DC 130 VAC or DC
Price $225 $280 $160 $189 $100 $169
Warranty 2 years or 60 day money back 1 year Doesn't say. 30 day return
Link Alienbees Impact 160 Impact 300 FlashPoint 320MFlashPoint 620M
User Manual Manual Manual Manual
Source www.paulcbuff.com www.bhphotovideo.com www.adorama.com

My own choice was Alienbees, because they are fully featured with a wonderful reputation, and I’m very pleased with them, but the point here is NOT to recommend a flash. The point is to cause awareness of certain features, or the lack of them. That awareness will be the recommendation.

This group of inexpensive USA flashes do not work on 240 volts AC. These are USA sources, with advantage of being very reputable firms which stand behind them.

A few terms for beginners:

Auto Dump: (Not applicable to speedlights. Speedlights are always recycled to Full voltage, regardless of power setting).
When adjusting power lower, the (voltage controlled studio) flash has to discharge the flash capacitor partially to reach the lower voltage level. Otherwise you have to trigger the flash once, as voltage won't change until it recycles next time. Auto Dump means the flash automatically does this, without flashing.
The Impact limited Auto Dump means the flash does it, but by actually automatically flashing when you turn power down.
The Flashpoint specs don't spec Auto Dump.
The Alienbees are real Auto Dump. They don't flash when power is turned down, Auto Dump just bleeds the voltage off automatically when power setting is lowered. Speedlights don't need Auto Dump, not an issue for them (speedlights always start at full power, but then quench the light off sooner to limit the power). All but the cheapest studio lights do Auto Dump. Auto Dump can take a 2 or 3 seconds to discharge, until the Ready LED shows, but it is automatic, and it only occurs when you adjust power down, and then your next shot won't surprise you.

Fan cooling: Prevents damage from overheating, and allows more rapid flash shots (assuming recycle time allows it). With no fan, the Impacts include substantial damage warnings about heat, say to allow it to cool after rapid flashing. All fans are not equal and speedlights don't have fans, and heat is a problem for them too, but all but the cheapest studio lights will have a fan.

Flash Duration for voltage controlled monolights is fastest (shortest) at full power, and is roughly twice longer at minimum power. ISO standards for flash duration is spec’d at t.5 values, which measures the time between the 50% power points (so it actually lasts substantially longer). A t.1 spec measures between the 10% power points and mathematically is 3 times longer than t.5.
Speedlights, except for the one full power level, chop off their trailing tail abruptly to reduce both power and duration, which compares more like t.1 values. See speedlight description (two pages there).

A few monolights are built as speedlight type, but most of them are instead voltage controlled.

FlashesSpeedlight controlVoltage control
ModeAlways recycles to full voltage, then controls the lower power levels by cutting off the flash duration sooner to be faster duration at lower power level Uses progressively lower voltage levels to set the lower power levels, and then triggering is allowed to fully discharge (less speed, but still fairly fast)
DurationFull power is regular flash, but the chopped off low levels are extremely fast (called speedlights)Lower power levels are slower than higher ones, lowest is perhaps twice slower than full power
ColorLow power levels chop off the red trailing low power tail, leaving the hotter color, becoming less red, more blue-greenLower power levels become slower and cooler, becoming more red

Recycle time is longest at full power (the value shown), and much faster at lower power. Recycle time is the "recharge" time between shots, before the next shot can work right. A larger flash has a larger capacitor that takes longer to refill, but also a larger flash power supply and efficiency affects recycle time. Recycle time is often near instantaneous at low power, but can take a couple of seconds at full power. There will be a “Ready Light” indicating recycle is complete and ready to use again. The available power will be low if not ready.

The cheapest imports may not have auto dump, or a fan, and probably recycle slower, or power may not turn down low enough, or flash duration will be slower, or may have tiny modeling lights. Check availability of flash tubes, the cheapest do not have replaceable flash tubes. Don't assume unspecified features exist. The unknown Chinese brands can't offer any support for repair or parts or warranty. A reseller might provide a warranty claim for them, but those odds are low. But the low price to replace essentially makes them expendable.

Please know that comparing guide numbers or exposures (like f/8 at full power) can be very misleading, because output depends on the reflector too — how the reflector choice distributes the power over a large field. For example, speedlights have a different guide number at every zoom value. Efficiency is a factor too, but a wider angle reflector requires more power to illuminate the wide area than a flash with a more narrow reflector, which concentrates a narrow brighter beam. This reflector point is a big deal.

For example (details): The Flashpoint 320M says their reflector is 55 degrees wide (Impact does not say), and says Guide Number is 192 (feet). Alienbees offer several different reflectors, but the one furnished is 80 degrees. With it, their manual (page 16) says B800 320 watt seconds output is f/8 plus 9/10 at ten feet. They have other reflectors offering 2 and 3 stops more concentrated light. But f/8 plus 9/10 is f/10.9, and at 10 feet is guide number 109 (feet). Which is less than Flashpoint's GN 192, which sounds 56% higher. But 80 degrees is a tan(40)/tan(28) = 56% wider dimension than 55 degrees, which is radius 1.56² = 245% more area to be filled with light. Intensity is a per unit of area thing. If any of these numbers are reasonably accurate, that impresses me.

B&H (Impact) and Adorama (Flashpoint) are online retailers of the highest reputation, and these imported lights are their house brands. They do not manufacture flashes, and I suspect they don't offer any service, but they can offer warranty, at least on their house brand. Very different than Ebay sellers with no contact data. Alienbees are direct sales only from the manufacturer www.paulcbuff.com in Nashville, who has influenced flash design for decades. They are the most popular brand sold in the U.S., and their service, including after warranty, is simply legendary. See Google Alienbees or Einstein.

Another difference is that studio lights all use different systems of attaching lighting modifiers, such as softboxes or grids, etc., so we have to use what fits. Exception is that umbrellas should mount on all lights (except Elinchrom uses a special 7 mm hole for their umbrellas, so the standard 8 mm umbrella shaft diameter will not fit them). So there are differences in the selection and range and prices of modifiers available to fit each light. If anticipating that you will grow your hobby, you might check ahead that a plentiful choice of options are available. It may also be instructive to check price and availability of parts, like replacement flash tubes or other parts.

The camera cannot meter manual flash. It's not hard to tweak in exposure of one light by eye, maybe two, but a flash light meter will be extremely useful for multiple lights (used to set each light to a precisely known power relationship, called lighting ratio). I also use the same PC sync cord to meter each light individually. It's not just about exposure, it's easy to tweak the camera exposure by eye, but this is also about setting the lighting ratio, the known difference in the lights, to produce the specific desirable gradient tonal shading.

Studio portrait basics for flashes

Lighting ratio is a very important control. We don't just set two lights out there on either side of camera. Instead, there are two important properties of Main and Fill, about intensity and location:

My choice was that I have four Alienbees (two each 160 WS and 320 WS). Inexpensive (primarily because they are sold direct by manufacturer in Nashville), but these are the good inexpensive ones. Fully featured, and extremely decent performance wise. I've used them ten years, and they are still a pleasure to use and all that I need. One did finally fail recently, but a $40 repair charge (including shipping) fixed it fast (Their service is a superb legend). Four lights are used for Main, Fill, background, and hair. Since the Main light is usually placed very close (my 160 watt seconds in a Large 42" softbox at about 30 inches, and then ISO 100 f/8 is nearer to 1/4 power than to 1/2 power). My Fill light umbrella is back above the camera, maybe ten feet. In that case, I would suggest one choice is starting with one 160 WS light, and one 320 WS light. Then you're ready for most indoor things, and if you get into it, you'll probably add more lights later. You can always meter them to set them equal if desired, but if you're just going to put one light on either side of camera, you'd probably prefer two identical lights. But the Main/Fill concept is a different subject, and much better lighting.

A summary

Continuous lights - Incandescent and CFL

Speedlights (flash)

Studio lights (flash)

Certainly any flash is greatly more light than continuous bulbs, allowing desirable camera settings like low ISO and stopped down aperture. You've seen what your hot shoe flash can do. But using flash has differences, especially metering, may require a bit of getting used to.

Flash spooks some, but it's easy if you let it be easy. Flash is an added light that we control. If result is too bright, turn it down. If not bright enough, turn it up. When you realize this is YOUR job now, it becomes easy. If using manual flashes, a light meter helps a lot (especially true for multiple lights), to actually know what we're doing. If TTL, flash compensation is how we control what the camera is doing. If not at the right angle, move it so it is. Make it be like you want it. This does not happen automatically, so the first thing to realize is that it is YOU that has to control this. If you're willing to get involved, then flash is not hard.

We can't see the flashes lighting effect except in a test picture (rear LCD of camera). Bigger studio lights have 250 watt incandescent modeling lights in them, which help to see shadows and catch lights, but the illumination levels probably won't show accurate ratio, so a test picture is the final word. Incidentally, these modeling lights can be left on during the picture, without even affecting the flash picture.. because they are too dim for say f/8 1/200 ISO 100, a very black picture without the flash. The flash overwhelms them. This is something you should verify once, pull the camera sync cord and take the same picture without flash, just modeling lights on. Then at your sessions regular exposure, you want to see a black picture, because incandescent lights are orange.

The camera cannot meter flash (TTL systems excepted). You can use a handheld incident meter, which are fabulous, and precise, or you can trial and error tweak it in (for one or maybe two lights, but more lights need a meter, to have a clue about ratio, and to easily reproduce the same setup next time). Tweaking the camera exposure without a meter is easy, but the advantage of the meter is in setting the power of multiple lights to their exact known relationships... lighting ratio. A common plan is the Main light is quite close, high, and towards the side (maybe near 45 degrees wide, and up to 45 degrees high, from subject). A Fill light is more frontal, near the lens axis, which has to be back by the camera so the lens can see around its umbrella. For color images, the Fill is often set about one stop less bright at the subject than the main light (ratio). For TTL with the Commander, just set the fill group to -1 EV compensation. Equal lights are flat, normally a bad thing for portraits.

There are many choices, and also other ways, but my notion is a speedlight in a softbox simply doesn't fit. Light does come out, but studio lights are used bare bulb in softboxes (180 degree wide light), which does not describe the focused Fresnel lens on speedlights. And speedlights cannot hold up the softbox (as studio lights do). Speedlights do work very well in an umbrella. Just for an idea, my notion of a good low price starter kit for two speedlights is:

This setup will work. Except, you may need to provide a background behind the subject (a few feet back to eliminate shadows on it), which can be many things... whatever you want to see there. Maybe a purchased muslin or seamless paper background, but it can be a wall, a fireplace, a white sheet or foam board, etc. White things farther from the light will look gray unless you provide another background light for it. Another option is to provide a hair light, from high behind, to highlight the hair, and/or to separate dark hair from a dark background. This is a sparkle in the hair, like catch lights are sparkles in the eyes. A sheet of letter size paper, wrapped long ways around the speedlight head with a piece of tape, can make a snoot tube to project a narrow beam of light (keeping it off of shoulders, etc.) More than two lights is a problem for the camera Commander, but a manual flash system can just use the extra flashes slave, easiest thing.

See details about mounting speedlights in umbrellas. Umbrella shaft length is proportional to umbrella size, and my notion to fill the umbrella is 24 mm zoom on the speedlight, with it mounted back near full shaft length.
See a typical portrait lighting setup.

I'm hoping this is useful information to newbies wanting to do portraits.

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